With no natural enemies, the invasion of lionfish has posed a threat to marine life in the Gulf Coast
Non-native invasive species often mean bad news for native flora and fauna. The negative consequences of invasive species are often far-reaching and cost the United States billions of dollars in damages each year.
In fact, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, invasive species are a leading cause of population decline and extinction in animals.
An invasion of lionfish in Gulf Coast waters have scientists, nature enthusiasts and fishermen particularly worried, and for good reason. Lionfish are voracious feeders and are notorious for decimating juvenile populations of reef fish.
Although lionfish are native to warm Pacific waters, they now inhabit Gulf Coast waters thanks to aquarium owners who have released them into the Gulf. And, a small number escaped into the Atlantic from aquariums during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They quickly colonized the Atlantic Coast and were spotted off the Carolinas and Florida coasts for several years.
Scientists predicted that the invasion of lionfish would spread throughout the Caribbean and into the Northern Gulf of Mexico, which is exactly what they’ve done.
Marine biologists now regard the lionfish, which has no natural enemies, as one of the largest threats facing the Gulf fisheries. In addition to its aesthetic attributes, one quality that made the lionfish a popular aquarium species is its hardiness and ability to adapt to a variety of habitats. Its hardiness, combined with its voracious appetite, making it a true menace to Gulf Coast reef ecosystems. In fact, lionfish have been found to reduce average net juvenile fish recruitment by 79%.
The Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition
Many of those alarmed by the invasion of lionfish have decided to take action. In fact, a group of concerned citizens has formed The Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition.
The coalition is comprised of concerned divers, fishermen, gourmet cooks and citizens that want to do their part to help mitigate the threat the invasion of lionfish poses to Gulf Coast fisheries. They have a passion for protecting and enjoying this country’s natural resources and welcome the participation of any that share those same goals.
The coalition’s mission is to educate the public and increase awareness of the threats posed by the invasion of lionfish to Gulf Coast fisheries and marine ecosystems. The coalition promotes and facilitates the removal of lionfish by volunteer divers and the consumption of lionfish by the public via restaurants and seafood markets.
As a part of its efforts to remove lionfish from the Gulf, the coalition hosts a fall and spring lionfish roundup and awards a number of cash prizes for the most, biggest and smallest lionfish speared during the event.
Catching lionfish by using a baited hook and line is not easy because lionfish ambush their prey. So, spearfishing is the only reliable means for killing them.
What Makes Them a Threat?
Adult lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico average eight inches long and weighing just over one-half pound.
The largest lionfish recorded in the Gulf of Mexico was 16.5 inches long. The world record lionfish (captured in SE Florida) was 18.5 inches long. There have been unverified reports of larger fish being shot in U.S. waters.
“Lionfish have venomous dorsal, pelvic and anal fin spines that are sharp enough to easily penetrate wetsuits.”
Lionfish are typically white, with maroon stripes, but they can change colors over time, so it’s not unusual to find specimens that are almost black.
Lionfish have venomous dorsal, pelvic and anal fin spines that are sharp enough to easily penetrate wetsuits. Although lionfish venom is not known to cause fatalities, it is very painful and may cause severe swelling to the affected areas of the body.
Lionfish can live from five to 15 years and have complex courtship and mating behaviors. Females release two mucus-filled egg clusters frequently, which can contain as many as 15,000 eggs. Lionfish prey mostly on small fish, invertebrates, and mollusks in large quantities.
The lionfish is a skilled hunter, using specialized bilateral swim bladder muscles to provide control of its location in the water column, allowing the fish to alter its center of gravity to better attack prey. The lionfish then spreads its large pectoral fins and swallows its prey in a single motion. It blows jets of water while approaching prey, apparently to disorient them.
What Can You Do?
The invasion of lionfish has posed a huge threat to reef ecological systems in the Gulf and could lead to serious problems in the future. If you’d like to learn more about what you can do to help keep the population of lionfish in check, visit www.gulfcoastlionfish.com.
You can assist lionfish hunters and researchers by reporting lionfish kills with Coast Watch Lionfish’s GoogleEarth-based Lionfish Map website. This map provides researchers, divers, fishermen and lionfish hunters with a means for monitoring and enhancing reef health by identifying lionfish hot spots. Visit http://www.gulfcoastlionfish.com/lionfish_map.html to see or add to the map.